The Lost Girls of Willowbrook – by Ellen Marie Wiseman – independent book review – Historical Fiction (United States)

NOTE: I was given early access to this manuscript in exchange for writing an impartial review. Thank you edelweiss+ and Kensington. Publication: August 30, 2022.

Awarded five stars on Goodreads. I felt SUCH genuine relief when I finished the last page of this book. NOT because it isn’t well-done. Because the book is SO extremely powerful, suspenseful, and deeply compelling — but also VERY difficult to read. So much of it is horrific, yet true.

The book touches on all the most horrible elements you’ve ever read or heard about warehousing people in large, mental hospitals. Based on the true story of Willowbrook State School for children, the Staten Island facility whose deplorable treatment of residents was first exposed by reporters Geraldo Rivera and Jane Kurtin in the early 1970s. Their reports lead to a nationwide rethinking of the treatment of mentally ill people and largely, over the next generation, eliminated these large facilities across the country. But back to this book.

Overcrowded and understaffed, living in dilapidated buildings, about 5400 residents were housed at Willowbrook. In THE LOST GIRLS OF WILLOWBROOK, author Ellen Marie Wiseman (one of my favorite authors) creates a fictional account of a single resident’s story.

It begins in the 1960s. On the recommendations of medical personnel, 10 year old Rosemary is sent to live at Willowbrook by her alcoholic mother — who can no longer deal with her at home. But Rosemary’s twin sister, Sage, is told instead that Rosemary died of pneumonia — leaving a deeply grieving Sage who feels that she has lost half of her own self.

Willowbrook State School for Children
Photo from Wikipedia

Six years later, when this book begins, and after their mother’s death, Sage overhears her stepfather talking about Rosemary being missing from Willowbrook. MISSING, not dead. This news sends Sage on a desperate quest to find her lost sister. And it is her quest that is the focus of the novel. But you can well imagine that a 16 year old is hardly equipped to deal with this situation alone.

Here comes the warning. It turns out that for me, and I imagine for most of us, Sage’s journey contains so many elements of our worst nightmares. No one believing you when you speak the truth. Being locked up, with no escape. Witnessing staff members physically and sexually abuse patients. Medical experimentation and surgical interventions without consent. Overuse of drugs to keep patients quiet. Inadequate care that doesn’t even meet the most basic standards of human needs — food, clothing, and sanitation.

Despite all these horrors, I HAD to finish the story. I found myself deeply emotionally involved. I too wanted to know if Rosemary would be found? I identified with Sage’s desperation to discover the truth and worried whether she would remain safe? And, like her, I wasn’t sure who to believe or who could be trusted.

The story of how mentally ill people were treated at this time is an important story. Shameful, but part of our history. So, the least I could do was expose myself to it. And I guarantee that if you complete this book, your own understanding of and compassion for mentally ill human beings will change.

Ellen Marie Wiseman
Photo from her Website

You might want to learn a bit more about Willowbrook before reading this book, as preparation. Here’s a link where you can read more about Willowbrook.

More about the author, Ellen Marie Wiseman.

You may be interested in my reviews of other books by Wiseman. She’s VERY talented.

The Orphan Collector

What She Left Behind

The Plum Tree

The Life She Was Given

Coal River

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